Cynicism is the dominant theme of today's politics. But being cynical is a cop-out.
My very first job as a reporter was covering sports for The Pitt News.
I was a sophomore in college and it was, at the time, the second coolest job I’d ever had (the coolest was working for my cousin’s nursery in West Texas as a teenager, where I got to drive forklifts, shoot guns and hang out in Mexico). The gig was basically a guaranteed front row seat to every major sporting event at a Division I school, the University of Pittsburgh. For a sports fanatic like me, getting to write up game recaps and take notes the whole time was even more fun than just watching absentmindedly.
It was in the press rooms of those events that I first sat next to ESPN reporters, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette legends, and all the other pros — where I learned how to ask questions, where to hold my voice recorder, how to sniff out a lie, and generally what it meant to actually bear coherent witness to an event.
By my senior year of college I knew that I wanted to write for a living and that I didn’t want to write just about sports forever. I had a column called “A Grain of Saul” and my pieces at the school paper were increasingly veering into cultural commentary, often at the intersection of sports and politics. Pestering 19-year-old athletes for print-ready quotes sort of lost its luster after a few years. Sports matter, and they serve an important function in society, not just as an escape, but also as a mirror for other things. But I knew then as I do now that there were more meaningful things to write about — things I wanted to learn about and witness and share.
Throughout my life, I’ve written about all sorts of things — not just sports. I used to have a blog called “Music to Words” where people could submit songs and I would write whatever came to mind when I listened to the music (that idea is trademarked, don’t steal it). When I was living in a yeshiva in Israel, I wrote essays home about what it was like being immersed in ultra-Orthodox society and culture in Israel. In this newsletter I’ve written about my deceased fish and random mornings in New York City. I’m chipping away at a book about my long-lost uncle, and as many of you know I have been kicking around the idea of another newsletter dedicated solely to UFOs.
So, why politics?
I think the answer now is the same as it was when I first decided I didn’t want to write about sports anymore: Because they matter.
If I had to use one word to describe today’s political climate I’d choose “cynical.” There is so much cynicism in American politics these days. Not just from citizens but from politicians, reporters, TV talking heads and Twitter influencers and pundits, in basically every direction you look. The consensus is that politicians are all liars, all they want to do is get re-elected, and everything they do is to make money, gain fame or stay in office. As a result, the country is divided, Congress doesn’t get anything done, our presidents are a rolling clown car of incompetents, and in the end we, the non-elite, always get screwed. That’s politics to most Americans.
When I meet someone at a party or in a bar and they ask what I do, and I tell them I’m a reporter or I write a newsletter or I cover politics, inevitably there’s the same mix of interest and pity. Oh, that’s cool, but wow, that must suck! I sometimes get the sense people think of it as if I’m the paparazzi or stuck in the Truman Show. It seems exciting, but isn’t it all just phony, elaborate theater?
The reason I love covering this stuff, and the reason I still think it matters, is because our understanding of government is so directly related to how much we can impact it. There are very few things in life for which this is true. Take the sports example: No matter how much I know about my dear Washington Football Team, perhaps the most reprehensible franchise in all of sports in every facet imaginable, I can never stop them from being terrible on or off the field. Nothing I do will change the fact that my favorite team is perennially awful. My wife is applying to law school, and no matter how much we learn about the process and what advantages you can get or how you might improve your odds, we can’t change the actual process or influence the admissions board with anything other than her LSAT score, GPA and personal statement.
The skeptic might say this is also true of government. But it isn’t. We can directly impact how the government functions. Not just with a vote, but by influencing our neighbors, by organizing, by running for office ourselves, or even by writing about it. The implication of all of this is simple but profound: The better we understand politics, the easier it is for us to change how the government is impacting our lives.
And no matter how disconnected or uninterested someone is — any global citizen, really — politics play a huge role in their lives. Even if you’ve never voted and don’t watch the news and don’t care, as millions of Americans don’t, you still pay taxes, still need health care, have to wear a mask when there’s a pandemic or need the government for unemployment checks when you lose your job. Whether you work a cash register at the grocery store or you’re a teacher or a cop or a landlord or even Jeff Bezos, the Democrats’ $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill is going to have a big impact on your life.
It’s also true that politics is everything. I don’t mean that in the exhausted, frustrated way either — I’m not saying everything has been politicized — though of course that is somewhat true, too. I’m just saying that politics is a cocktail of all the things we think of as being important: Religion, science, family, education, law, technology, money. The way all of that functions is directly impacted by the politics of our country and the way our government works.
If I want to write about abortion, for instance, I don’t just need to understand the legal precedent behind Roe v. Wade. I need to understand the scientific arguments about what happens after an egg is fertilized to understand the ethical arguments the pro-life movement is making. I need to understand the way pro-life rhetoric drives political donations and whether that’s the end goal of a politician’s position. I need to understand the nuanced views on abortion that Americans hold. I need to know the history of what it was like to get an abortion before they were legal. And I need to understand the deeply personal, too: The emotional experience of a woman living in a state where she can’t access an abortion if she becomes pregnant after being raped.
The fact that politics encompasses all of these things is what first drew me to it, and what has made me so committed to continuing to write about it even on the days when I’d rather light my eyes on fire. And it’s the reason you should care about it too. Which is something I realized while ruminating on this recently: The same reason I like to write about politics is why we should all be reading about politics. One of the few things you can be certain of is that politics will eventually impact your life — it probably already has. “Death and taxes,” right? Well those taxes are determined by the people we put in office (and, if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that the government can have an outsized impact on your odds of dying, too).
It’s easy to be cynical, and there’s good reason for it. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the politicians leading our country are all competent and well-intentioned. Many of them are, but plenty aren’t. I’m certainly not going to pretend our government is functioning the way it should, or has been for the last decade. It hasn’t. That might be one of the few things we all agree on, even if our reasons are different.
It’s easy to be cynical, but that makes it too easy to tune out or turn away. Why watch a State of the Union address when there is football on? Why take 10 minutes reading about a reconciliation bill when you could read about Elon Musk and Grimes breaking up? Why write a letter to your congressperson about drone strikes killing civilians in Afghanistan when you could spend 20 minutes reading the latest social media drama?
The hard thing is to accept that politics actually matter a great deal, and that for all the huffing and puffing and lies and nonsense, we are the ones who are meant to be in control — but that control only exists if we take the time to learn and act. It’s easy to be cynical because being cynical makes it easier to feel less responsible, to feel as if whatever we do doesn’t matter and we have no control. So why even vote? Why spend the time to figure it out? Why care at all?
When I think about why I write about politics I think of that. It’s not just about wanting people to shed that cynicism, it’s about helping people realize that being a cynic is the easy way out. And that perhaps the key to not being so cynical is to better understand how the sausage is made, why people believe what they believe, and then how you want to change the country you live in.
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